Straight Talk On Striped Bass

Striped bass, photo by John McMurray

Addressing Common Misconceptions about Striper Management

I’ll admit here that while I try real hard to NOT look at social media or other internet chatter on fisheries management stuff, I often can’t help it. I mean, I haven’t exactly found that arguing with people on Facebook is productive. So, I’ve become accustomed to reading, shaking my head, and moving on.

But come on, man…some of the things folks write, particularly recently about striped bass, seem pretty far off the mark. Doesn’t matter how many times you might try to correct it, it’s the same handful of comments over and over again.

Yes, I do get the frustration and anger, particularly if you don’t have the full context, and it seems like managers just aren’t doing what they should. And, I can’t really point fingers, because the truth is that many of the frequent contentions are very similar to the things I would have said nearly a decade and a half ago ago… before I had a seat at the table. I served on one of the eight regional fisheries management councils for three terms (nine years) and then served as New York’s Legislative Proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for six years.

Just because I held those seats does NOT, by any stretch, mean I’m an expert in all of this. But I still do know when things are just flat out wrong. And I do feel like it’s important to point out some of the common knee-jerk reactions, and the inaccuracies people perpetuate online, while trying to provide some context.

On “Gamefish”

Atlantic striped bass female spawning stock biomass and recruitment, 1982-2020

Atlantic striped bass female spawning stock biomass and recruitment, 1982-2020

Pretty much EVERY post on striped bass, whether it’s a photo of dead fish, sharing an article etc., always leads to one or two comments (or more) stating something along the lines of “make it a gamefish.” If it’s not clear, this is a way of saying, “get rid of the commercial fishery and make it 100% recreational.”

Those folks of course are either insinuating or all out blaming the commercial striped bass fishery for all of the fishery’s woes. And that somehow, there will be a ton of stripers around, and the stock will never experience overfishing, if we were to simply get rid of the commercial fleet.

It’s an understandable assumption if you’re not in the management loop, because there are photos all over the internet of piles of dead stripers harvested by “greedy” commercial fisherman. I have to admit, such photos still rub me wrong, but it’s pretty hard to point the finger at that stuff when anglers account for 90% of the fishing mortality.

To be clear, the recreational fishery has been almost entirely responsible for the overfishing that’s occurred over the last decade. I wouldn’t call the commercial fishery insignificant, but it’s really only responsible for about 10% of the mortality.

That wasn’t always the case, but today the commercial fishery is managed with a quota based on landings in the 1970s. Each state is only permitted to land a certain poundage of fish each year, and if it lands more, the excess is subtracted from the following year’s quota. Landings are strictly monitored by each state, which employ various methods to prevent the state’s quota from being exceeded.

Yes, there’s most certainly illegally harvested fish that fly under the radar, but the legal commercial fishery is pretty well regulated. And while, again, I wouldn’t say the illegal catch is insignificant, by most estimates, it isn’t really a huge source of mortality either.

The recreational fishery, on the other hand, has always been managed by size and bag limits. There are no quotas and very few constraints on effort, thus, as the stock recovered in the 90s, the recreational fishery grew. Because there were increasingly more fish around, and a greater chance of angler success, of course more and more anglers began to participate…ahem, a LOT more.

So, the commercial fishery stayed static while the recreational fishery continued to grow. And here we are now, with a LOT more anglers fishing under a size and bag limit, and the same relatively small striped bass commercial fishery.

In case it isn’t clear, the point is that, while yes, all mortality matters, the recreational side accounts for the lion’s share of striped bass landings. And, simply getting rid of the commercial fishery isn’t going to help with any sort of overfishing we might have. Particularly because it’s very unlikely any state would agree to simply take their commercial quota and create some sort of conservation buffer with it. It’s much more likely that managers would just redistribute it to the recreational folks to kill. That’s exactly how things went down in New Jersey, who decades ago got rid of the commercial fishery and transferred that quota to their recreational tag program which allows folks to kill an extra fish.

Indeed, some folks will argue that if we got rid of the commercial side of things here, then managers would simply look at the fishery differently, putting more emphasis on conservation and angler satisfaction (i.e. insuring abundance and a good distribution of size and age classes). Try as I might, it’s hard for me to buy that, as at least some recreational stakeholders, particularly the charter/party-boat fleet, will always be pushing for more fish. And historically, that stakeholder group has some sway.

Regardless… taking fish away from the “hard-working American commercial fishermen” to give them to the “rich guys who like to play with fish” is a political non-starter right now. It’s not even on the table, so I wish folks would stop treating it like it is. And, even if it were, it would have minimal if any conservation benefit.

Moratorium

The next thing we’re most likely to see on social media is the “moratorium” comment. In other words, shut it all down.

The “M” word is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

First of all, we’re not really even in a place yet where a moratorium is justified. Because the sky isn’t falling, and you have to be blind to not understand that numbers have been increasing. While indeed we’ll see setbacks and likely some tweaking of the regulations, the 2022 stock assessment update found that we are currently on track to rebuild the stock by 2029.

Perhaps more importantly though, folks have to understand that recreational discard mortality (those fish that die after release) is a huge part of overall fishing mortality. Right now, it’s more than half of all recreationally related fishing mortality. And, well, it accounts for way, WAY more mortality than commercial harvest.

That may seem hard to believe, but with the growth in the number of folks targeting striped bass, the fish’s popularity amongst sportsmen who generally release them all, as well as what are undoubtedly some pretty constraining regulations along the coast, there’s a lotta guys throwing stripers back. The discard mortality rate is estimated at 9%. In other words, one in eleven of those fish we are throwing back don’t make it (which from my two decades of doing striped bass charters seems fairly accurate). When you extrapolate that across the huge number of anglers, well, it’s a pretty big number.

Yes, when most folks say “moratorium” they mean an all-release fishery, but in the context of that large discard mortality number, that certainly isn’t what a lot of managers think. And I get it. If stakeholders that have a clear impact on the striped bass stock have to suffer, it’s not unreasonable to make it “fair” and included the catch and release folks.

Certainly, no-target closures (in other words, you can’t even be out there fishing for them) were on the table during the first few iterations of Draft Amendment 7. Fortunately, those options got thrown out, because there were more than a few others around the table who shared my belief that we don’t need them yet. But don’t for a minute think they won’t be considered again.

I guess what I’m saying is, “be careful what you wish for.”

Most don’t want a moratorium, especially one that includes catch and release fishing. It’s something that’s easy to say when you’re fed up, but it would likely put a LOT of people, who have for decades tried to do the right thing by promoting catch and release, out of business.

Working within the system, and constraining harvest when needed, I’m a believer that we will ultimately rebuild…well, ahem, maybe.

Rebuilding Striped Bass to their Former Glory

This one is kinda tricky. Striped bass are currently overfished, but overfishing is not occurring (note: this may change by the next assessment update). In other words, striped bass are indeed rebuilding under the current rebuilding plan…for now anyway. On the water, that’s been clear to may of us. Certainly, there’s been a definitive increase almost across the board (with the noted exception of the Chesapeake area).

But, let’s be clear about what rebuilt means. Back in 2018, all of the recreational survey data was recalibrated in an attempt at greater accuracy. In doing that, however, NOAA fisheries found out that they greatly underestimated recreational effort, and when new effort estimates were plugged into the model it showed that there must be more fish around. While it’s a long and complicated story on how this came about (one that I’m not really equipped to tell), the result is we have a higher female biomass target than we had before. So, for the entire time series, going back to 1982, it looks like the only time we reached it was for a few years in the early 2000s.

So yes, we can actually reach it, but it’s clearly an unusual level of abundance when you consider the entire time series. The point is that it ain’t gonna be easy, and perhaps not even possible given the clear decline in Chesapeake productivity (the major striped bass producer area). But I find it odd that this is something very few people know, much less talk about. A ton of social media chatter about how if those stupid managers just do right by us and the resources, it’ll be a piece of cake. Well, it won’t.

Let’s circle back to the “be careful what you wish for” stuff, because it’s not impossible that we find out eventually that we can’t get there without a moratorium. And we could very well be looking at a no-target one, all while thousands and thousands of stripers blitz in New York Harbor.

Which is why when people say the M word, it sends shivers down my spine.

At any rate, I suspect a lot of this will be addressed in the next benchmark assessment, and while there’s been a ton of pushback on relooking at/reconsidering what are empirical rather than biological reference points, well if we can’t get to this target level with reasonable measures that allow at least some participation, then I’m beginning to believe that it’s not such a bad idea.

Conclusions

Let me take a minute to editorialize before I close this up.

In my opinion, which is informed not only by my time behind the table, but also by my years on the water, stripers aren’t in terrible shape. A few years ago, I definitely wouldn’t have said that. And I do believe we’ve come a long way since things really tanked.

Not only do there appear to be more fish around in general, there are more big ones than I’ve seen in the two decades I’ve been doing this. And this increase in abundance and availability is supported by the data. All of this to me means current management – particularly the 25% decrease in landings in 2015 and the 18% in 2020 and the slot-limit that came with that – is doing what it’s supposed to do.

Don’t get me wrong though. We are NOT out of the woods by any measure. While I did mention we are on track for a full rebuild and that almost without-a-doubt the stock seems to be on the rise, recreational fishing mortality skyrocketed last year. Because, well, there were more fish around to catch. Under most circumstances, that would be considered a good thing, but given we’re being asked to rebuild to a level of abundance we’ve rarely seen, while recruitment is clearly wasn’t what it was when we reached those levels, it’s not really.

It’s pretty clear that what we’re looking at is a scenario where we’re overfishing again, simply because of the abundance. And that will likely require another reduction in the form of more constraining measures. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the poor Maryland young of the year indices in recent years. While this might be offset by some of the really good production years in the Hudson and Delaware estuaries, I’m still guessing that we’re in for some lean times ahead.

But I certainly DO NOT believe the sky is falling. Because it isn’t. And IMO, we’re actually not in a bad spot with stripers, particularly when you consider where we were a few years ago.

I can say with some certainty that we don’t need gamefish, nor do we need a moratorium… And when I read that stuff my eyes uncontrollably roll. I also don’t believe rebuilding to a level we’ve only once achieved, when recruitment was REALLY good, will be easy, no matter what decisions managers make. So, we all need to buckle up.

A lot of this is likely to be discussed at the May ASMFC meeting, so stay tuned.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray owns One More Cast Charters in Oceanside, NY and served as New York’s Legislative Proxy at ASMFC from 2016 to 2022

4 comments on “Straight Talk On Striped Bass

  1. Really good write up John..this winter and still is the most big fish I have seen in Maryland in the last 20 years on the Chesapeake
    My understanding is the commercial fleet got their tonnage pretty quickly also

  2. Pingback: Straight Talk On Striped Bass - Moldy Chum

  3. Unless I missed it…why no mention of the comms draining the ocean of a massive number of breeding size fish? There is absolutely NO reason to prohibit recs from keeping one trophy fish per year IMO. Also, where are all these dead stripers after release? None of us see them and we’re out there at least 50 days a year.

    • Because they aren’t draining the ocean of a massive number of breeding size fish. Least not comparatively. The commercial mortality (large fish included) is dwarfed by recreational fishing mortality. Even discard mortality from the rec side (breeders included again here) greatly exceeds total commercial mortality. Agreed, however, that it’s hard to protect the spawning stock unless ALL fish over 35″ are protected. I’m out on the water probably close to 200 days a year. I don’t see floaters all that much either, unless of course a squid trawl rolls though. That doesn’t, however, mean that they aren’t dyeing. In my experience, 9% doesn’t seem too far off the mark. What I mean is that generally 1 in 10 fish we land is gut-hooked or gill-hooked. And we fish almost exclusively with plugs. I mean, you’d expect a big discard # with any fishery that’s clearly weighted toward sport instead of food. Its simply gonna be part of the equation. The point I was making in the piece is don’t go advocating for a moratorium unless you are willing to give up even C&R for striped bass.

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